A month ago, Biden told Congress that he was taking “emergency” action to quadruple the refugee restrictions for fiscal 2021 to 62,500, up from Donald Trump’s record-low level of 15,000. Biden also said he was removing discriminatory eligibility criteria that Trump created last year. These restrictions effectively excluded most refugees from Muslim and African countries — even those the U.S. government had already screened and approved for resettlement.
Expanding the pool of eligible refugees was “justified by grave humanitarian concerns and is otherwise in the national interest,” the Biden administration explained. Human rights advocates and political allies hailed the announcement as a much-needed step in helping the United States recover its moral standing in the world.
Then, perplexingly, Biden didn’t sign the document required to put his own announced policy into effect.
Until this document, the “presidential determination on refugee admissions,” is signed, Trump’s draconian restrictions remain in place. Biden’s own State Department apparently expected this simple bureaucratic task to be completed weeks ago: The department booked, and has since canceled, flights for at least 715 refugees previously cleared for admission, according to resettlement agencies expecting to receive the arrivals.
“Biden has been saying all the right things, but looking at his actions, when it comes to refugee resettlement, nothing has changed since the Trump administration,” said Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive officer of the refugee resettlement agency HIAS. “Nothing.”
So far, the White House has offered no explanation for Biden’s delay. When I asked, a spokesperson sent me a content-free statement: “The President is committed to strengthening the operations of the United States Refugee Admissions Program. While no firm numbers have been finalized, the President’s view is clear: This program will reflect the generosity and core values of the United States, while benefiting from the many contributions that refugees make to our country.”
Of all of Trump’s restrictionist immigration policies, the refugee ceiling and eligibility criteria are among the easiest for Biden to reverse. The Mexican border issue is thorny; showing greater humanity (and actually following the law, which the Trump administration did not) may well attract more migrants. This could overwhelm the U.S. intake infrastructure, which is already insufficient. Likewise, the politics on employment-based visas are complicated when joblessness is high. Crafting a permanent fix for “dreamers" requires an act of Congress.
But this? This is easy, and Biden knows it.
It’s possible that the holdup is related to the surge in migration at the southern border. Maybe the White House worries that voters won’t understand the difference between the refugee process (in which applicants have undergone years of waiting and vetting) and the asylum process (in which applicants show up at the U.S. border, and only then begin their application and screening).
If the refugee-ceiling paperwork delay is about avoiding more headlines alleging Biden’s softness on persecuted peoples, well, he already got those headlines — a month ago, when he announced the new policy. The public believes Biden has already lifted the refugee ceiling; only those desperate refugees who were recently unticketed know otherwise.
Among them are Sixste and Nimbona Uwizeyimana, two brothers who fled violence and persecution in the African country of Burundi. They applied to be resettled about a decade ago. They have since passed interviews, background checks and medical exams conducted by officials from the United Nations and the U.S. government. They’ve proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their lives were in danger and that they present no security or public health threat to the United States.
Finally, three weeks ago, they were cleared for resettlement and booked on a flight to the United States. The brothers gave away their mattresses and blankets, and Sixste sold the small shop he was running.
Then, two days before their flight was scheduled to leave, the State Department canceled their tickets, saying Trump’s restrictive policies were still in place after all. The family is bereft. They cannot understand how a new president — who has spoken so glowingly about immigrants in general, and refugees in particular — would give false hope to families such as theirs.
“We just wish he could see the hurt that’s been caused from this back and forth,” said their niece, Nelisse Niyongabo, herself a refugee who arrived in 2008. “You know, we just wish that he’d honor what he said he’d do.”